Thursday, February 24, 2011

Random Snippets

Elections were remarkably peaceful (a few isolated incidents around the country with some injuries and a few deaths, but nothing major). A bit anti-climactic for all the hype we were giving it. Looks like I won’t be leaving Uganda soon after all. Friends and family, that means you should start planning to visit me here. ;)

There are some things here I’ll never get used to, like how people will turn up at my front door, we clearly can’t understand each other (language barrier), but they continue to just stand there, saying nothing. Or when I’m walking down the street and people not only stare, they stop whatever they’re doing and stare. They almost never smile, not even when I clearly see them staring. Sooo awkward. Sometimes if I wave, it snaps them out of their “Look at the strange muzungu” trance and they might smile or continue on their way.

This is a conservative society (I’m not even really supposed to show my knees!) but I come home the other night after dark and there’s a full-grown woman bathing in the front yard. Stark naked. She lives next door, and I know there’s an indoor bathroom just like mine where she could be bathing.

I found a black widow spider in my house last week. Gave me the heebie jeebies for a few nights. I keep checking corners to see if I find any more – none so far.

I was at a big market the other day shopping for clothes (I’m SO sick of wearing the same 5 outfits all the time) and one man goes, “Muzungu, you come back, I want to eat on your money.” It’s actually funny to see the clothes in the market – half of them still have Goodwill price tags on them, and a good portion are t-shirts from American sports camps or church retreats which you know the participants wore a few times and then realized they no longer wanted a shirt from a retreat 7 years ago. A good chunk of those clothes you donated to charity last year? They wound up in Africa, being sold for $1.

One of my friends in the village, Chief (his nickname, he’s not a chief), owns a bar where I sometimes go for milk tea or to buy bread. I usually end up talking to him, and he keeps asking me why I don’t buy land here and stay in Uganda forever. There are so many answers I could give him (family, a general creepy factor from Ugandan men, sushi, my career, lack of infrastructure of any kind, etc.) but I usually just say, “We’ll see.” Sometimes I want to tell him that I occasionally doubt my ability to even stay here for 2 years.

The other day, I was walking about 1-2km to one of the primary schools, and one of my neighbors sees me and says, “Eh! Noomanya kutambura?” You know how to walk? Why yes, yes I do. Been doing it about 22 years now. I think they’re just surprised whenever they see me doing something that requires exercise, like walking, fetching water, or doing laundry.

Speaking of water – what a disaster! I never knew what the dry season really meant until now. Our rainwater tank continues to be pretty much empty (although it has been raining more often lately, hopefully rainy season is soon here!), and the stream where I was getting bathing/washing water finally got stagnant, gross, and very low. I found a shallow well, and when I pumped the water into my jerrycan it looked clear, but when I poured water for my bath later that night, it was a gross reddish color. Not really sure what happened there. I told myself it just had a lot of iron in it and still bathed. I had no other option, and already had been procrastinating on a bath. Makes me think about all of my neighbors, and the majority of people across Africa and the developing world, who don’t have a rainwater tank, so are always getting their water from unsafe sources that could dry up at any time. In America, we use drinkable water to wash clothes, bathe the dog, and even power-spray the house.

I’m learning to just sit and do nothing, and sometimes that worries me. One of my Life Skills students asked me to come to her house. She speaks very little English, and I speak very little Runyankore-Rukiga. Therefore, I sat for about 3 hours at her house saying almost nothing and staring at pictures on the walls. I was good enough at procrastinating before Peace Corps – now will I procrastinate by just sitting and staring at a wall? I’m also picking up the bad habit of tuning people out, a product of not understanding conversations about 90% of the time.

Kibo is doing great – she’s now 5+ months old (and when I told my neighbor when she turned 5 months old, he sang “Happy Birthday to Kibo”, in his limited English, for the rest of the day). She continues to be pretty afraid of strangers and strange places, but is getting a little better and a little braver, probably because she’s proud to be sporting a fashionable collar and leash from the U.S. (thanks, Mom!). I try to take her into the trading center any chance I get, and she’s going on an excursion to another PCV’s site soon – a little tough love to get her outside of her shell. I’m going to have her spayed soon by a vet who will drive to my house from Mbarara.

Things have been emotionally hard in the past few days – I think I was watching too much Grey’s Anatomy, which made me realize how much I want to practice medicine, which made me question why I’m here doing work I didn’t really sign up to do (NGO capacity-building and community health, not animal husbandry), which made me actually want to be studying my ass off in vet school right now, etc. I’ll find things to keep me busy for a few days, then be faced once again with not enough work. Can I do this for 19 more months? The one thing that makes me want to stay during these low times is remembering the amazing friendships I’ve formed, both with other PCVs and with Ugandans.

Watching the sunrise after an early morning hike with friends

Sunset in my village. No matter how my day went, this sight brightens my mood and warms my heart.

Shameless Request for Magical Treasures from America

I present to you my Care Package Wish-List. I would appreciate any or all things on this list (and really anything not on this list, too). Some things you just can’t find in Uganda! Thank you to everyone who has already sent cards, packages, etc.. Every piece of mail I get is like Christmas morning. Also, almost everything I’ve received has been addressed to “Sister Britt Larson”, so it seems that technique works. I’d suggest you do it, too. Mwebale munonga (thank you all very much)!
  • Granola bars (CLIF bars, Quaker Chewy bars, etc.) – esp. with peanut butter and chocolate
  • Velveeta Mac & Cheese
  • Magazines
  • Scented candles
  • Travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer
  • Duct tape
  • Aussie 3-Minute Miracle deep hair conditioner
  • Beef jerky
  • Crystal Light To-Go packets
  • Cashews, almonds
  • Cans/packets of meat (chicken, salmon, etc.)
  • Yoga DVDs – 30-minute-ish videos would be great
  • Beginner's guitar books/DVDs (so I can teach myself)
  • Any type of chocolate-y candy (like Reese's Pieces)
  • Shower scrunchie/loofah (the big puff-ball thing… don’t know what they’re really called)
  • CoverGirl Perfect Point Plus eyeliner - Black Onyx color (just because I'm a PCV doesn't mean I can't try to look pretty! just ignore the 5 layers of dirt on my feet)
  • Single-serving packets of salad dressing (honey mustard, caesar, bleu cheese, and raspberry vinaigrette sound spectacular)
  • Orbit Gum - Sweet Mint flavor
  • Sunflower seeds (to plant)
  • Romaine lettuce seeds
  • Books – any book would be great, but here are a few I want to read:
- Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa – Dambisa Moyo
- The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto Guevara
- Equine ER – Leslie Guttman
- A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
- Pathologies of Power – Paul Farmer

Friday, February 18, 2011

Uganda Votes…Uganda Decides?

One of the unique experiences I’m having right now is the chance to witness an African presidential election first-hand. Elections in Africa are notorious for being unfair, non-democratic, split along ethnic lines, rigged, and even violent, whether on the part of the candidates (who throw each other in jail or worse) or on the part of citizens who are angry with the results, often because they suspect the results have been altered in favor of the ruling party. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in office for 25 years (after he changed the constitution to eliminate the 2-term limit), so no matter the outcome of the elections, I can imagine people will be upset.

So far, things in my village have been peaceful and celebratory. One of the candidates for Member of Parliament (like a Congressman) came to our village the other night and a big crowd showed up, everyone excited to hear speeches and then dance/celebrate afterwards. However, I was slightly appalled by a story my neighbor had told me earlier – she and 9 others had met this candidate before and told him they were a women’s group raising goats and needed money to buy more goats for the group. He gave them money to help their cause, not realizing (or at least not admitting) that it was a fictitious group and they all spent the money on clothes, beer, etc. Now they’re all going to vote for him. While candidates in America spend a large part of their campaign money on commercials, tours, billboards, etc., here they literally buy votes, whether with money or just things like t-shirts (which are not even affordable for some people here). People often say they won’t vote for a candidate unless they are given something directly. It frustrates me that people seem to care less about the issues and beliefs of the candidate than what type of hand-out they’ll get prior to voting, but if you’re impoverished it might be more important to get money to feed your family this week than how the next president will increase the number of children in school or improve national security.

It’s interesting to hear the opinions of people around me. Some openly admit that their elections are not free and fair, others say the opposite. Most deny that violence ever occurs during elections, while others say there will be trouble. While I can’t take an open political stance, or show favor for a certain party of candidate, due to my affiliation with Peace Corps and the U.S. government, I can say that I hope Uganda can make improvements on previous elections and make the entire governmental system more democratic.

Elections are today, and the results will be announced on Monday. If there are any riots or trouble with elections, it will mostly likely not occur in my small village but rather be in the towns and cities. President Museveni is voting in Kiruhura District, where I live (he’ll vote about 45 minutes away from me but right where one of my PCV friends lives so I hope it goes well). I will keep you all updated on how things go in the next few days. I’m hoping that it all goes smoothly and we can continue serving in Uganda as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

6 Months and Going Strong!

Time has really flown by – it’s been 6 months since I arrived in Uganda with a group of 45 new Peace Corps Volunteers, and we’re all still here! That’s a big deal – it’s pretty common for a few people to drop out during training or within the first few months at site. I absolutely love my group and honestly can’t imagine life without knowing them. They are incredible, wonderful people! While the days move slowly, and sometimes America seems like it was years ago, I still can’t believe we’re already 6 months in. We’re also now Peace Corps “sophomores” as the newest group of volunteers arrived yesterday, exactly 6 months after us. Only 19 more months to go!

While I still feel like I’m on an emotional rollercoaster (some days I’m super happy to be here, other days I dream of going home, even if just for a few minutes), I know I wouldn’t trade this for anything and I’m praying that presidential elections on February 18 go smoothly so we can all stay here. While it would have been different leaving a few months ago before getting settled into my community, I’m finally becoming pretty busy at my site and have a lot of projects I am starting – leaving now would be heartbreaking and I would feel like I left so many things unfinished. I can’t imagine leaving within two weeks. Everyone at home, please keep your fingers crossed and pray that I can stay and finish what I came here to do.

So what am I working on these days? I’ve just started a girls’ group at a local primary school to teach life skills, English, and health, I’m planning an HIV and Gender Inequality workshop put on by The Hunger Project, I’m trying to coordinate a group of PCVs to do something big for World Malaria Day on April 25, I’m organizing the dairy farmers to apply to become a formal group, I’m soon hosting a composting demonstration, and I’m planning visits to other PCVs’ sites to help them with dairy cattle and rabbit projects. I’m trying to motivate myself to work more on learning the language, and I have a lot of little things I’m pushing for, too – things as simple as an announcement board where we post a calendar of events at The Hunger Project, or finding new ways of storing the beans we collect from farmers to avoid pest damage.

I’m debating whether to bring my SLR out in my village. It would take such better pics than my little point-and-shoot, and I could spend hours taking photos, showing people, getting prints made for friends (which would be SO appreciated here), and have photos I could really cherish for a lifetime. I don’t really want to reveal that I have a nice camera, but people here already know I have a computer, an iPod, solar power, a small camera... and I feel very safe in my house and in my village. I also have insurance on all my valuables. I’ll probably give in soon and share the photos with you.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned my Ugandan name, given to me by my host family during training – Kamusiime (Kaam-see-may), which basically means “Giving thanks to God.” Since Ugandans often have difficulty pronouncing my name, I often tell them they can call me Kamusiime. I also get called “Betty” a lot because the “Br” sound is somehow hard to pronounce.

I’m savoring the ability to make an entire crowd laugh with just two words in Runyankore-Rukiga (sometimes nothing more complicated than “I don’t want” to a persistent seller or “We are here” to emphasize that we don’t want a taxi) because people can’t believe I’m speaking the local language. It will be strange to go back to the U.S. and never get noticed in a crowd (although it will also be a relief).

Speaking of life after Peace Corps, I can already see myself changing, although I’m sure the full extent of these changes won’t be visible to me for some time to come. I’m more patient but also more clear about my personal boundaries on what I’ll put up with and what I won’t. I’m learning to pick my battles, when to push to get something done and when I need to realize that something should just be left alone (the perfect quote for this is “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference) . I know I’ll be shopping at more farmers markets when I get back and trying to live a simpler lifestyle. I’m learning to somewhat enjoy cooking, and I’m not too bad at experimenting in the kitchen. I’m also realizing just how good the American life really is.